“She Will Be Heard”: Elizabeth Warren Knows Where A Lot Of The Bodies Are Buried, Puts AIG On Notice
When new members arrive in the US Senate, they are supposed to take a seat on a back bench and listen quietly for a couple of years. That is not in Elizabeth Warren’s nature. She had been a US Senator from Massachusetts for only about a week when she broke with etiquette. Warren was outraged that AIG investors were urging the insurance giant’s directors to join them in a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming damages from the federal bailout of their company during the financial crisis.
The freshman senator sent out a tartly worded statement to her many fans and followers. “AIG should thank American taxpayers for their help—not bite the hand that fed them,” Warren wrote. The message swept the blogosphere like wild fire. The AIG directors folded the next day. It is perhaps mistaken to assume her voice alone stopped this corporate ingratitude in its tracks, but that may well be the message absorbed in Washington politics. Try not to provoke this new senator, especially on the stuff she knows a lot about. She might bite back.
Indeed, Senator Warren has renewed the accusation about the AIG bailout she had made a year ago during her Senate campaign. While the Federal Reserve pumped a fortune ($182 billion) into saving AIG from failure and thereby protected Wall Street megabanks from huge losses, the Treasury Department was arranging its own “sleuth bailout,” as Warren charged. Treasury granted an exception to the standard tax rules that delivered billions more to AIG in the form of a special tax break.
The company was effectively relieved from paying any taxes despite the fact that it has returned to profitability and repaid the Federal Reserve loans. The senator called on her supporters to join a campaign to end AIG’s special tax break. “Enough is enough…,” she wrote. “These special tax giveaways give AIG a competitive advantage over its competitors—all the while inflating AIG’s profit numbers and compensation for executives.”
What separates Elizabeth Warren from your typical newcomer to Congress—in addition to the rare gutsiness—is her deep knowledge of banking and finance. For many years, while she taught at the Harvard law school, Warren was a lonely crusader, exposing predatory bankers and the cruel terms by which millions of families were driven into bankruptcy.
Her reputation led to appointment as the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel that investigated the AIG bailout in great depth. The COP final report is itself an extraordinary document of government—clear and concise, an unflinching analysis that describes exactly how the Federal Reserve and the Treasury failed to serve the public interest in their incestuous bailout of Wall Street titans.
“The AIG rescue demonstrated that Treasury and the Federal Reserve would commit taxpayers to pay any price and bear any burden to prevent the collapse of America’s largest financial institutions,” Warren’s report concluded.
She will be heard. The new senator will serve on the Senate banking committee and she already knows where a lot of the bodies are buried. I suspect some of those disgruntled AIG investors are wishing they had kept their whining to themselves.
By: William Greider, The Nation, January 10, 2013
A trillion dollar platinum coin? Really? Has our politics really reached a point where such an obviously inane idea is gaining traction? Well, yes. When your capitol has become Clowntown, U.S.A., you sometimes need to fight bad ideas with silly ones.
The idea, if you haven’t heard, is for President Obama to defuse the forthcoming debt ceiling crisis Republicans are busily manufacturing by directing the Treasury to mint a platinum coin worth $1 trillion. With an extra trillion on the books, the debt ceiling would no longer be an issue. While the Federal Reserve ordinarily is in charge of printing money, there’s a law on the books allowing the Treasury secretary to produce platinum coinage of whatever value s/he sees fit.
Sure, the purpose of the law was to permit the Treasury to issue commemorative coins. But so what? The purpose of the debt ceiling wasn’t to give one party the leverage for a global, economic hostage crisis. Were the debt ceiling not raised, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein writes, “the damage to the economy would be tremendous, and it would occur at every level, from individuals looking for a loan to buy a house to hedge funders trying to play the markets.” His full article on what happens if we breach the debt ceiling is worth a read.
So when one political party is acting like a political version of a James Bond villain (“Give in to my demands or I will wreck the world economy!”) maybe the answer is for the president to channel his inner Dr. Evil (“One trillion dollars.”)
Again, it all sounds silly but some very serious folks are lining up behind it, including the New York Times’s Paul Krugman, who has a Nobel Prize lying around his office. New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler is also a fan. And despite some suggestions that none of this is legal because it’s not what the law was intended for, Philip Diehl, a former director of the Mint, told Klein that it’s perfectly legal.
So is it a silly idea? Yes. But Republican extremists have brought us into an age of political asymmetrical warfare, passing off crazy, dangerous ideas as serious. Why should the president unilaterally disarm on that front?
By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, January 9, 2013
Mitt Romney is optimistic about optimism. In fact, it’s pretty much all he’s got. And that fact should make you very pessimistic about his chances of leading an economic recovery.
As many people have noticed, Mr. Romney’s five-point “economic plan” is very nearly substance-free. It vaguely suggests that he will pursue the same goals Republicans always pursue — weaker environmental protection, lower taxes on the wealthy. But it offers neither specifics nor any indication why returning to George W. Bush’s policies would cure a slump that began on Mr. Bush’s watch.
In his Boca Raton meeting with donors, however, Mr. Romney revealed his real plan, which is to rely on magic. “My own view is,” he declared, “if we win on November 6, there will be a great deal of optimism about the future of this country. We’ll see capital come back, and we’ll see — without actually doing anything — we’ll actually get a boost in the economy.”
Are you feeling reassured?
In fairness to Mr. Romney, his assertion that electing him would spontaneously spark an economic boom is consistent with his party’s current economic dogma. Republican leaders have long insisted that the main thing holding the economy back is the “uncertainty” created by President Obama’s statements — roughly speaking, that businesspeople aren’t investing because Mr. Obama has hurt their feelings. If you believe that, it makes sense to argue that changing presidents would, all by itself, cause an economic revival.
There is, however, no evidence supporting this dogma. Our protracted economic weakness isn’t a mystery; it’s what normally happens after a major financial crisis. Furthermore, business investment has actually recovered fairly strongly since the official recession ended. What’s holding us back is mainly the continued weakness of housing combined with a vast overhang of household debt, the legacy of the Bush-era housing bubble.
By the way, in saying that our prolonged slump was predictable, I’m not saying that it was necessary. We could and should have greatly reduced the pain by combining aggressive fiscal and monetary policies with effective relief for highly indebted homeowners; the fact that we didn’t reflects a combination of timidity on the part of both the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve, and scorched-earth opposition on the part of the G.O.P.
But Mr. Romney, as I said, isn’t offering anything substantive to fight the slump, just a reprise of the usual slogans. And he has denounced the Fed’s belated effort to step up to the plate.
Back to the optimism thing: It’s true that some studies suggest a secondary role for uncertainty in depressing the economy — and conservatives have seized on these studies, claiming vindication. But if you actually look at the measures of uncertainty involved, they’ve been driven not by fear of Mr. Obama but by events like the euro crisis and the standoff over the debt ceiling. (O.K., I guess you could argue that electing Mr. Romney might encourage businesses by promising an end to Republican economic sabotage.)
You should also know that efforts to base policy on speculations about business psychology have a track record — and it’s not a good one.
Back in 2010, as European nations began implementing savage austerity programs to placate bond markets, it was common for policy makers to deny that these programs would have a depressing effect. “The idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect,” insisted Jean-Claude Trichet, then the president of the European Central Bank. Why? Because these measures would “increase the confidence of households, firms and investors.”
At the time I ridiculed such claims as belief in the “confidence fairy.” And sure enough, austerity programs actually led to Depression-level economic downturns across much of Europe.
Yet here comes Mitt Romney, declaring, in effect, “I am the confidence fairy!”
Is he? As it happens, Mr. Romney offered a testable proposition in his Boca remarks: “If it looks like I’m going to win, the markets will be happy. If it looks like the president’s going to win, the markets should not be terribly happy.” How’s that going? Not very well. Over the past month conventional wisdom has shifted from the view that the election could easily go either way to the view that Mr. Romney is very likely to lose; yet markets are up, not down, with major stock indexes hitting their highest levels since the economic downturn began.
It’s all kind of sad. Yet the truth is that it all fits together. Mr. Romney’s whole campaign has been based on the premise that he can become president simply by not being Barack Obama. Why shouldn’t he believe that he can fix the economy the same way?
But will he get a chance to put that theory to the test? At the moment, I’m not optimistic.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 23, 2012
Last week Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, announced a change in his institution’s recession-fighting strategies. In so doing he seemed to be responding to the arguments of critics who have said the Fed can and should be doing more. And Republicans went wild.
Now, many people on the right have long been obsessed with the notion that we’ll be facing runaway inflation any day now. The surprise was how readily Mitt Romney joined in the craziness.
So what did Mr. Bernanke announce, and why?
The Fed normally responds to a weak economy by buying short-term U.S. government debt from banks. This adds to bank reserves; the banks go out and lend more; and the economy perks up.
Unfortunately, the scale of the financial crisis, which left behind a huge overhang of consumer debt, depressed the economy so severely that the usual channels of monetary policy don’t work. The Fed can bulk up bank reserves, but the banks have little incentive to lend the money out, because short-term interest rates are near zero. So the reserves just sit there.
The Fed’s response to this problem has been “quantitative easing,” a confusing term for buying assets other than Treasury bills, such as long-term U.S. debt. The hope has been that such purchases will drive down the cost of borrowing, and boost the economy even though conventional monetary policy has reached its limit.
Sure enough, last week’s Fed announcement included another round of quantitative easing, this time involving mortgage-backed securities. The big news, however, was the Fed’s declaration that “a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the economic recovery strengthens.” In plain English, the Fed is more or less promising that it won’t start raising interest rates as soon as the economy looks better, that it will hold off until the economy is actually booming and (perhaps) until inflation has gone significantly higher.
The idea here is that by indicating its willingness to let the economy rip for a while, the Fed can encourage more private-sector spending right away. Potential home buyers will be encouraged by the prospect of moderately higher inflation that will make their debt easier to repay; corporations will be encouraged by the prospect of higher future sales; stocks will rise, increasing wealth, and the dollar will fall, making U.S. exports more competitive.
This is very much the kind of action Fed critics have advocated — and that Mr. Bernanke himself used to advocate before he became Fed chairman. True, it’s a lot less explicit than the critics would have liked. But it’s still a welcome move, although far from being a panacea for the economy’s troubles (a point Mr. Bernanke himself emphasized).
And Republicans, as I said, have gone wild, with Mr. Romney joining in the craziness. His campaign issued a news release denouncing the Fed’s move as giving the economy an “artificial” boost — he later described it as a “sugar high” — and declaring that “we should be creating wealth, not printing dollars.”
Mr. Romney’s language echoed that of the “liquidationists” of the 1930s, who argued against doing anything to mitigate the Great Depression. Until recently, the verdict on liquidationism seemed clear: it has been rejected and ridiculed not just by liberals and Keynesians but by conservatives too, including none other than Milton Friedman. “Aggressive monetary policy can reduce the depth of a recession,” declared the George W. Bush administration in its 2004 Economic Report of the President. And the author of that report, Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw, has actually advocated a much more aggressive Fed policy than the one announced last week.
Now Mr. Mankiw is allegedly a Romney adviser — but the candidate’s position on economic policy is evidently being dictated by extremists who warn that any effort to fight this slump will turn us into Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe I tell you.
Oh, and what about Mr. Romney’s ideas for “creating wealth”? The Romney economic “plan” offers no specifics about what he would actually do. The thrust of it, however, is that what America needs is less environmental protection and lower taxes on the wealthy. Surprise!
Indeed, as Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute points out, the Romney plan of 2012 is almost identical — and with the same turns of phrase — to John McCain’s plan in 2008, not to mention the plans laid out by George W. Bush in 2004 and 2006. The situation changes, but the song remains the same.
So last week we learned that Ben Bernanke is willing to listen to sensible critics and change course. But we also learned that on economic policy, as on foreign policy, Mitt Romney has abandoned any pose of moderation and taken up residence in the right’s intellectual fever swamps.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, September 16, 2012
With deficit hawks circling overhead, the responsibility for creating jobs has fallen by default to Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve. Last week the Fed said it expected to keep interest rates near zero through mid 2015 in order to stimulate employment.
The problem is, low interest rates alone won’t do it. The Fed has held interest rates near zero for several years without that much to show for it. A smaller portion of American adults is now working than at any time in the last thirty years.
So far, the biggest beneficiaries of near-zero interest rates haven’t been average Americans. They’ve been too weighed down with debt to borrow more, and their wages keep dropping. And because they won’t and can’t borrow more, businesses haven’t had more customers. So there’s been no reason for businesses to borrow to expand and hire more people, even at low interest rates.
The biggest winners from the Fed’s near-zero rates have been the big banks, which are now assured of two or more years of almost free money. The big banks haven’t used the money to refinance mortgages – why should they when they can squeeze more money out of homeowners by keeping them at higher rates? Instead, they’ve used the almost free money to make big bets on derivatives. If the bets continue to go well, the bankers will continue to make a bundle. If the bets sour, well, you know what happens then. Watch your wallets.
The truth is, low interest rates won’t boost the economy without an expansive fiscal policy that makes up for the timid spending of consumers and businesses. Until more Americans have more money in their pockets, government spending has to fill the gap.
On this score, the big news isn’t the Fed’s renewed determination to keep interest rates low. The big news is global lender’s desperation to park their savings in Treasury bills. The euro is way too risky, the yen is still a basket case, China is slowing down and no one knows what will happen to its currency, and you’d have to be crazy to park your savings in Russia.
It’s a match made in heaven – or should be. Because foreigners are so willing to buy T-bills, America can borrow money more cheaply than ever. We could use it to put Americans back to work rebuilding our crumbling highways and bridges and schools, cleaning up our national parks and city parks and playgrounds, and doing everything else that needs doing that we’ve neglected for too long.
This would put money in people’s pockets and encourage them to take advantage of the Fed’s low interest rates to borrow even more. And their spending, in turn, would induce businesses to expand and create more jobs. A virtuous cycle.
Yet for purely ideological reasons we’re heading in the opposite direction. The federal government is cutting back spending. It’s not even helping state and local governments — which continue to lay off teachers, fire fighters, social workers, and police officers.
Worst of all, we’re facing a so-called “fiscal cliff” next year when $109 billion in federal spending cuts automatically go into effect. The Congressional Budget Office warns this may push us into recession – which will cause more joblessness and make the federal budget deficit even larger relative to the size of the economy. That’s the austerity trap Europe has fallen into.
Mitt Romney has been criticizing the Obama administration for not doing more to avoid the cliff, but he seems to forget that congressional Republicans brought it on when they refused to raise the debt ceiling. They then created the cliff as a fall-back mechanism. Romney’s vice-presidential pick Paul Ryan, chair of the House budget committee, voted for it.
It’s a mindless gimmick that presumes our biggest problem is the deficit, when even the Fed understands our biggest problem right now is unemployment. Yet even the nation’s credit-rating agencies have bought into the mindlessness. Last week Moody’s said it would likely downgrade U.S. government bonds if Congress and the White House don’t come up with a credible plan to reduce the federal budget deficit. (Standard & Poor’s has already downgraded U.S. debt.)
Hello? Can we please stop obsessing about the federal budget deficit? Repeat after me: America’s #1 economic problem is unemployment. Our #1 goal should be to restore job growth. Period.
The Federal Reserve Board understands this. And at least it’s trying. But it can’t succeed on its own. Global lenders are giving us a way out. Let’s take advantage of the opportunity.
By: Robert Reich, Robert Reich Blog, September 15, 2012